Local crafter sewing herself into growing small business with unique designs
Mary Catherine Kunze has the individual customer in mind when she chooses fabrics, bends over her sewing machine and hand finishes each order. As a result, the young business owner and her custom handbags are starting to get noticed, and Kunze had her best month of sales to date in April.
About 400 women and girls are toting around Kunze’s creations, some who have bought locally and others who found the online store. While the bags have similar quality and aesthetic, they are “Uniquely MC” and no customer has the same as another.
“I don’t make any two (handbags) alike,” Kunze said.
She began her business with a works pace set up at home but is now one of many local artists collaborating together at Tapp’s Arts Center, where artisans of all types can rent studio and display space.
Many 20-somethings are working on the next big idea for a smartphone app or a way to make people’s lives easier through technology. At the 2013 Ignite! Ideas Contest sponsored by EngenuitySC, all three finalists’ entries were web-based or technology-based.
Meanwhile, 27-year-old Kunze is churning out orders on the same sewing machine she purchased from Leitner’s Sewing Center when she was in high school. Some might see the Ben Lippen and Winthrop graduate’s work as simple, but she thinks it’s an important part of the small business landscape.
“There’s something to be said for something that’s handmade,” she said.
Kunze also embodies the “shop local” movement. She purchases nearly all of her fabric from Fabric 101, a Columbia store where she works, and sells Uniquely MC handbags at Silver Spoon Bake Shop on Devine Street, Good for the Sole on Harden Street and Soda City Market once a month.
“A lot of people have found out about me through those small businesses,” she said.
Having parents who were small business owners in the Midlands motivated Kunze to branch out on her own a little more than a year ago. Learning the dos and don’ts from them put her on the right path and the support of other business owners has allowed Uniquely MC to develop a growing reputation and client base.
“I’m an artistic person, not a business person. I don’t think I would have done it if not for (my parents) and the small businesses I’ve worked for,” Kunze said. “I have a huge support system.”
Her father also receives a lot of credit for getting Kunze at the pedal of the sewing machine. Knowing she wanted to study interior design in college, he encouraged her to take her first sewing class so she’d have a good handle on the basics. Kunze then taught herself everything she needed to get started making handbags.
Kunze recalled the instant when she found herself wanting to make bags for people on a regular basis. A customer at Fabric 101 came shopping for materials for her own handbags, and Kunze was inspired. She went out and bought her first pattern the next day, and seven hours after making the first cut, the first Uniquely MC bag was complete. Kunze has since cut down her production time to about three hours per bag.
Kunze also was working part time at the former Cottage Antiques and Interiors, and the owner suggested she make bags to sell at the shop. After some success, Kunze knew she had to make a go of turning Uniquely MC into more than just a hobby.
“I said ‘I’ve got to try it’,” she said.
Kunze has come a long way since the very first purse she made from one of her dad’s old neckties and blue jeans. Instead of duplicating designer purses as customers sometimes request, she sketches new patterns and shapes and adds unique details. She also serves as matchmaker for fabrics and colors when a customer doesn’t quite know what to pair together.
“It’s nice when people tell me to do what I think is best and to know they trust my judgment,” Kunze said.
Women have taken notice of the care Kunze puts into each bag, from hand-sewing the top to give it a cleaner line or working with customers to give them their own signature look.
“I love the whole aspect of each one being different. Whether it’s a button or strap, each is unique,” said customer Colette Terlitsky.
“I love how personalized the bags are and appreciate it coming from a local artisan,” Terlitsky’s sister Kristen said.
Kunze said her story of turning a creative hobby into a growing business has served as an encouragement to others who are on the verge of trying something new or risky.
“(Making art by hand) supports the dreamer in all of us,” she said.
Kunze is still excited about her work even several hundred bags later. She is looking into how to expand the line and use other materials like leather and vinyl to give people more choice and to challenge herself creatively.
Customers can contact Uniquely MC with a style or color palette in mind, or they can request a fresh version of a current design. Multiple bags are also for sale at Good for the Sole and Silver Spoon Bake Shop.